Last November, during an interview, Stacey Abrams was asked about the best book she had read in 2020. She immediately named “Ida: A Sword Among Lions” by Paula Giddings. She thought this biography of Ida B. Wells instructive and timely for black women fighting against exclusion and injustice. Intrigued, I ordered the book.
Last week, during a much-needed vacation, I finally read it and understood Stacey Abrams’ attraction. I found the book both inspiring and discouraging. For those of us unaware of the life and accomplishments of Ida B. Wells, this is a truly amazing story. In a time when more and more black women are rising to national prominence, reading about one of the first black women to do so is enlightening.
In 1883, long before the better-known Rosa Parks, Ida refused to give up her seat in a white only woman’s train car in Tennessee. Forced from her seat and the train, Ida sued the train company and won. Though she would lose in the court of appeals, her case garnered national attention. Shortly thereafter, Ida became the first black owner and editor of a newspaper in Memphis.
In 1892, enraged by the lynching of her friend Thomas Moss and two other black men, Ida published a series of editorials exposing how often lynching was used to eliminate successful blacks, discourage interracial relationships, and terrorize black populations. She also denounced these brutal spectacles as evidence of white moral bankruptcy. She encouraged blacks to move from Memphis and southern states to establish safer communities elsewhere. Her editorials led to the departure of thousands of much needed black workers from the south.
As you can guess, her opinions and suggestions were not well received by white society. While away in New York City for a meeting, her newspaper presses were destroyed, and a bounty put on her head. She would be unable to return to Memphis for more than 20 years. Undaunted, Ida would continue to write, speak, and travel. Supported by an aging Frederick Douglas, she would become one of the most famous black orators of the early 20th century, speaking to hundreds of thousands across the United States and England.
Almost singlehandedly, she generated the outrage that would slowly shift the opinions of white people in both the north and south around lynching. After many lynchings, she would travel incognito to the lynching sites, interview both the families of the lynched persons and those who lynched them and expose the racism and brutality of what many still thought of as vigilante justice. Her reports and pamphlets countered a white press that often celebrated and justified these heinous acts. She would speak out against lynching during meetings with four different US presidents. Her story is one of incredible courage and perseverance during a time when speaking out often led to your own lynching.
Yet reading this book was also discouraging.
How is it possible that I didn’t know much about this woman – other than her name – after 12 years of public school, four years of college and three years of post-graduate education?
More tragically, how is it possible that millions of black girls have grown up without knowing the full story of this amazing role model for what it means – both positively and negatively – to be a strong, assertive, principled black woman in America?
Ida would be less surprised by her obscurity. She, more than anyone, understood how often black women are ignored and devalued. Toward the end of her life, she saw W.E.B Dubois publish a history of the anti-lynching movement that would mention her only ONCE. Why? Because DuBois, Booker T. Washington and other black male leaders were never comfortable with Ida. They, as much as white society, were guilty of diminishing her contributions.
I suspect part of the reason Stacey Abrams found this book so compelling is how often she must have seen her own struggles in those of Ida. Many times, as I read, I thought of the saying, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” While lynchings ended, brutality like that experienced by George Floyd and so many others remain. The justifications for police brutality echo those used to justify lynching. While we have certainly made progress since the days of Ida, there are far too many ways in which black women fight the very same battles today.
Ida faced both racism and sexism as she struggled for justice. Many of her black male peers resented her popularity. Liberal white women, while supporting her anti-lynching campaign, were far less supportive when she advocated for women’s suffrage. At the Women’s Suffrage March in 1913, she refused to march with the black contingents in the rear of the parade as she was asked. Like Stacey Abrams and Kamala Harris and thousands of other black women, Ida lived her whole life never knowing if she struggled more against racism or sexism.
Ida was held to higher standards than black men and white women. Ida had to constantly defend her character and behavior. She was falsely accused multiple times of sexual and moral indiscretions. Unable to dispute her arguments against lynching and white supremacy, her opponents repeatedly tried to portray her as greedy, power hungry, attention seeking or a bitter and angry woman. According to her critics, when she was unmarried, she was a slut. After she married, she was a negligent mother. Today, white supremacy continues to use this tactic against black women. Stacey Abrams was attacked for being in debt. Kamala Harris has been called a Jezebel. Maxine Waters was called ignorant and stupid by President Trump.
Let’s be clear. It is impossible to be stupid and a successful black woman. That is a privilege reserved for white men and women.
Ida refused to play the games required to obtain power. Indeed, what infuriated her black male critics so much was her accusation that many of them had traded the dribblings of white power for their silence and apathy toward systemic injustice. Never satisfied by people’s supportive words, she expected action. When organizations or the politicians refused to act, she both acted and noted their inaction.
Ida would have applauded Stacey Abrams for responding to her election loss by challenging and addressing voter suppression. She would have understood the impatience of Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, the black women who launched the Black Lives Matter Movement. Ida would also understand why most people don’t know their names.
Ida deeply understood the concept of intersectionality long before the phrase was coined. For Ida, it wasn’t just the lynching of the falsely accused that was an injustice. She defended the unlawfulness of lynching those who were guilty, something hardly anyone did in her time. She would become a probation officer, a prison reformer and advocate for the poor. For her, the oppression of even the most unsympathetic person was still oppression.
Ida would understand why Dee Dee Watters is fighting for the rights of black trans women or Michelle Alexander is challenging our white supremacist prison system. Ida understood that her liberation was wrapped up in the liberation of others. She, like many black women today, was unsatisfied with any right given to exclusion of others.
I am grateful for Stacey Abram’s recommendation of this book. I am appreciative of the life and witness of Ida B. Wells. I am sad I didn’t know of her until now, but I have shared her story with my strong, black, thirteen-year-old daughter. She would be hard pressed to find a better model for her life than Ida B. Wells.
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